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South China Sea: Current Situation and Way Forward

2016-10-12 14:10:36       source:NISCSS

After the release of the final award by the arbitral tribunal, China has taken a series of timely and effective diplomatic and public opinion responses, which have helped to bring a period of relative calm to the South China Sea. But the current calm is only temporary. The situation in the South China Sea will soon enter an entirely new stage of development. The overall forecast is that it will become more turbulent, more complex, and more difficult to manage. The specific features of this approaching ‘new normal’ in the South China Sea are as follows.

 

First, the uncertainties surrounding the South China Sea situation will increase which can be attributed to: (a) the evolution of the essence of the South China Sea dispute; (b) the changes in the ‘rules of the game’; and (c) the adjustment in the disputants and stakeholders’ strategic objectives and interests. All these factors have transformed the disputes from claims related to sovereign rights and maritime jurisdiction to one concerning geopolitical competition involving a major external stakeholder, the US. In brief, geopolitics has become a primary driving force of the South China Sea situation and it will continue to exacerbate the situation.

 

Second, legal contestation in the South China Sea dispute will continue unabated because the United States and Japan hold that the award stands as valid while China deems that it is null and void. This contestation regarding the legal and strategic status quo will not end until China's land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea reach a point of finality and a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea signed.

 

Third, into the future, China will continue not to accept or recognize the award and will continue its facility construction on South China Sea islands in a bid to uphold its rights in the South China Sea.This may lead China to face more challenges and pressure at multilateral diplomatic forums. The United States, Japan, and some ASEAN countries will certainly use all the multilateral venues and mechanisms available to hype these issues under the pretext of their pet ‘China threat’ theory and heap pressure on China.

 

Fourth, the positive general direction of recent improvement in Sino-Philippine relations will not change, but at the same time it will not necessarily proceed smoothly due to the hindrance of various obstacles and forces. The dispute over "traditional fishing rights" in the waters around Huangyan Island will be one of the main obstacles to rapid improvement in bilateral ties. Parenthetically, China finds it to be totally contradictory that Philippines can enjoy a non-exclusively exercised traditional fishing right in the territorial seas around Huangyan Island where China enjoys sovereignty, yet China cannot enjoy an equivalent right in the exclusive economic zones of other South China Sea littoral states (within the nine-dash line) where these states, by the way, are only allowed to enjoy ‘sovereign rights’– not sovereignty.

 

Fifth, military and maritime competition - particularly between China and the United States - will become a significant feature of the geopolitics of the South China Sea. The United States, either alone or in concert with its allies, will make routine entries into the waters within 12 nautical miles of the insular features under Chinese control under the guise of supposedly upholding ‘freedom of navigation’. Japan’s participation in US-led joint patrols will certainly increase the possibility of a military conflict due to lack of political mutual trust, divergence of military strategies, and the lack of a crisis management mechanism. Regarding Japan, it is also worth pointing out that with the passage of bills in the Diet last year reinterpreting its right to self-defense (i.e. reinterpretation of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution), a military contingency involving the US and China in the South China Sea will automatically become what it defines to be an ‘important (security) influence’ situation. This will, in turn, compel Japan to provide logistical support to US Navy in the event of a contingency and entangle it further during the outbreak of hostilities.

 

Sixth, the award has changed the rules of the game in the South China Sea, led the parties concerned to adjust their own interests, and added uncertainties and difficulties to the consultation process for the CoC in the South China Sea. The area of application of the CoC’s rules is premised on the existence of unresolved maritime boundary areas of concerned parties in the South China Sea. By pretending to furnish a de facto delimitation of the China-Philippines maritime boundary in the South China Sea, the award has undercut this important justification that sustains the envisaged Code and has thus disturbed the consultation process associated with it.

 

Seventh, a possible crisis in the South China Sea may spill over to other areas. The separatist inclination of the present Taiwan authorities and the possible readjustment of their South China Sea policy may result in a crisis. In terms of their South China Sea policy, the Taiwan authorities are likely to gradually drift away from the Chinese mainland, go in line with the US and Japan, and echo the position of certain ASEAN states. If Taiwan’s South China Sea policy tries to conjoin itself to the strategic needs of the US and Japan or becomes part of the attempts to contain the Chinese mainland, then there will be a crisis that could spill over to other areas – notably to cross-straits ties.

 

Eighth, conflicts between maritime law enforcement forces may be inevitable between China and other countries in the South China Sea. All parties concerned have been trying to expand their respective maritime capabilities and presence and bolster effective control over insular features by conducting more law enforcement activities in disputed waters, yet there is a basic lack of a regional security mechanism and a crisis management mechanism is still under consultation. The coast guards of the relevant countries currently stand little chance of establishing a mechanism like the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) within a short period of time. Meantime, extra-regional actors such as the US, Japan and India continue to construct, fund or gift maritime law enforcement assets to certain ASEAN states on a lavish scale.

 

Ninth, maritime cooperation and joint development in the South China Sea may be confronted with more challenges. China is committed to promoting political trust with other claimants by means of maritime cooperation and joint development, and thereby building the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation. Other claimants, however, seem more interested in consolidating and maximizing their respective vested gains in light of the new ‘rules of the game’ that the arbitral award has been instrumental in creating.

 

The South China Sea has a bearing on China's sovereignty, security and development. The peace and stability thereof is not only related to the interests and well-being of regional states and people, but also of major concern to the entire international society. Therefore, maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea calls for joint efforts of the claimants, other littoral states and even the entire international community. Here I would like to share with you some proposals.

 

First, China and the US should build a more trustworthy military relationship that helps avoid misjudgment, reduces confrontation and manages crises in the South China Sea. The US should refrain from conducting close-in reconnaissance and entering the waters within 12 nautical miles of the insular features under Chinese control. It should also avoid pressing China on the pretext of the arbitral award, and avoid involving Japan and other allies in joint military exercises in the South China Sea. In response, China should strive to reduce the military nature of its land reclamation efforts, utilize the enlarged islands to provide more regional public goods-related services, avoid conducting land reclamation in Huangyan Island or declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, and promise not to consider a territorial sea baseline in the Nansha Islands for the time being.

 

Second, the consultation process related to the CoC in the South China Sea should be accelerated by setting up a "timetable" and a "roadmap". The parties concerned should recognize the urgency and importance of the CoC from the perspective of setting up a regional security mechanism and crisis management mechanism.

 

Third, after launching the two hotline platforms between China and ASEAN (maritime joint search and rescue hotline and the senior diplomatic officials’ hotline), the coast guards of the relevant countries should explore the possibility of establishing an incidents-at-sea prevention mechanism like the CUES.

 

Fourth, the relevant countries should explore how to establish a longer-term framework mechanism for cooperation among the littoral states in the South China Sea around such topics as marine environmental protection and sustainable utilization of biological resources in accordance with the stipulations of Article 123 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). They should begin by addressing urgent but low-sensitivity issues and, as an approach, embrace the principle of going from the easy to the difficult and from the simple to the complex in the course of establishing these cooperative mechanisms.

 

Fifth, in the course of resolving the core aspects of their multifaceted disputes, the parties concerned should conceptually embrace and gradually realize the "dual-track approach." While China and ASEAN as a whole should safeguard and maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, the respective claimant countries should establish bilateral mechanisms (China-Vietnam, China-Philippines, China-Malaysia, and China-Brunei) that, both manage their respective bilateral dispute and are geared towards settling the core aspects of their underlying dispute.

 

(This article is excerpted from the speech delivered by NISCSS President Wu Shicun at the 7th Xiangshan Forum.)